Digital music degree at PSU faces a high-tech world: Ability to read music not required

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 06-24-2023 6:00 PM

There’s a new bachelor’s degree in music being offered at Plymouth State University, but it’s a music degree with a 21st century twist: You don’t have to know how to play an instrument or even read music.

“We have a whole group of musicians that I refer to as digital-first musicians. You and I, we pick up an instrument – we learn guitar by ear or piano by ear, or we’re in band or a choir at school. We learn the notation,” said Jonathan Santore, a classically trained composer who is program coordinator for Music and Music Education programs at PSU, where he has been for three decades. “But a whole generation has learned through a digital-audio workstation program, like Garage Band. They’re deeply engaged with the materials of music but in a new way, a way that’s very different from those of us who have to learn notation or learn to play by ear.”

The Bachelor of Arts in Digital Music Production and Entrepreneurship is designed to help those people make better music and perhaps even make a living doing it, a task that has gotten increasingly difficult and complicated as technology such as music streaming has altered the industry. It will include classes on marketing, sales, entrepreneurship and legal issues as well as topics such as creating music for videos and sound design for live events, which can include such down-to-earth details as where to place the microphones.

“Traditionally, there is sort of a divide. There are programs that deal with audio engineering – recording and mixing and issues like that – and programs that deal more with music creation. This is a program where students don’t have to make a choice when they begin. For a couple of years, they will take basic coursework in both areas; as they get toward the end of studies, they’ll be able to specialize,” said Santore.

PSU has long offered undergraduate music degrees, including a B.A. in music education that include keyboard proficiency exams. Santore, who also teaches traditional music theory, said the new degree was created in response to technological and cultural changes.

“I came to realize that people using digital audio workstation programs were producing really interesting, subtle music,” he recalled. “I said: ‘Well, buddy, you’d better go back and look at what’s going on.’ ”

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He talked to recent alumni for advice while developing the degree and also some contemporary musicians “who had not followed a traditional university music training path for their thoughts,” he said. “One of these was Concord native Maya Bouldry-Morrison, a well-known DJ and sound artist who performs under the stage name OctoOcta.”

The program, developed in collaboration with the PSU School of Business, will begin with the fall semester on Aug. 28.

The most startling aspect of the new degree to outsiders is that it doesn’t require reading music in the traditional sense of recognizing individual notes on treble and bass staffs along with notation to indicate aspects like volume and timing. Software allows that information to be conveyed and understood in other ways.

“We will have some basic instruction in music notation. But it’s founded on the belief that (with) these digital musicians, the ability to read music is not necessary,” Santore said.

“Many of the greatest (classical) musicians couldn’t read a note of music. To make orchestral sound, they needed to learn and master notation to get information to musicians, or they needed a go-between,” he said. This applies to more modern music, too. He pointed to George Martin, famous for producing The Beatles. “They would articulate, we want this sound, that sound, and George Martin would know to turn it into a string quartet or whatever.”

These days, software can do most of that. “People can get their hands on a similarly large body of sounds without having to go through somebody who is deeply proficient in notation to get there,” Santore said.

One question that will arise when the class begins this fall is artificial intelligence. Free programs exist that can create entire pieces of music from relatively simple prompts, putting the role of human composers and musicians up in the air.

Santore said that AI is so new and changing so fast that it’s hard to say at the moment how that will affect the program or the careers of students.

Despite all this technology, however, Santore said the essence of being a musician remains the same.

“From an artistic point of view, your goal is to be making music, art, whatever it is, that you are happy with, that you enjoy, that speaks to you the way that something someone else made would speak to you. If you can have someone else pay you money for that, you’re a very lucky and blessed person.”

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